Archive | January 2017

On Hunting (Day 32)

Hunting is an important mainstay in many modern games, especially Ubisoft open-world sandbox extravaganzas.

It makes sense as a mechanic, right? Sneak up on some brutal creature, have an epic battle then use its skin for a new codpiece or whatever. My problem is how unbelievably boring most games manage to make the process.

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Sneaking around the forest and keeping an eye out for raccoons or bears or Bigfoot or whatever sounds like a good time, but manages to always amount to running around a game world until you happen to stumble into a harmless animal. Then you shoot it in the face, steal it’s skin and maybe go after its kids, I don’t know. That’s on you. Either way, it amounts to a whole lot of nothing that’s punctuated with a small amount of something not particularly exciting.

It surprises me that so many games have gone this route, because it’s rarely – if ever – well received (critically) and is about as innovative as a wet fart. It’s also often tied into major upgrades, so it’s not something that can just be ignored, as much as we may try.

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Now I’ve never been hunting in the real world, so it very well may be about walking around aimlessly until you can kill something for fun. However, I’ve also never helped 24 of my friends kill enormous demons at the pinnacle of a dark temple, but World of Warcraft is fun in spite of that. Realism doesn’t mean much in most games, is the gist here.

The Witcher 3 makes hunting a little less dull by giving players the ability to track their prey. Each hunt plays out like a miniature detective story, which is a lot more interesting than aimless wandering until you accidentally become a master hunter. Unfortunately, that’s just for scripted missions – if you want to hunt on your own, you’ll have to head out here and hope for the best. image.jpeg

Even Monster Hunter – a series about hunting monsters – manages to make the actual act of hunting the most boring thing about the series. Yes, the combat is amazing and yes, I’ve spent thousands of hours in that series, but the actual hunting process was never fun. Again, it’s about randomly roaming about until you happen to stumble into your prey.

How do you feel about hunting in games? Are there any major exceptions you enjoy, or do you enjoy the typical process? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments!

On Using Enemies as Skateboards (Day 31)

So this is an esoteric one, and as far as I know it’s only happened in the one (brilliant) game; Devil May Cry 3.

Fans of DMC will understand immediately, but newcomers may wonder how – or even why – somebody could ride an enemy around the stage like a skateboard. A bleeding, screaming, demonic skateboard.

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This is what Devil May Cry is all about – style over practically or logic. The series starts with the protagonist stopping a motorbike by shooting the gravity out of it, then DMC3 begins with a younger version of that same character killing a bunch of demons with a ceiling fan.

If you haven’t played the series, you are singlehandedly to blame for all global misfortune.

Also – and I wish I didn’t have to say this so much in my adult life – but I’m sorry for the short and weird one. Long day!

What are your favourite memories of, uh, riding an enemy as a skateboard? Do you have more than one? Please let me know in the comments!

On Quiet Moments (Day 30)

This is going to be a quick post on a very broad subject, so be aware that I’m potentially missing out on a whole lot of information. Hopefully you enjoy the read anyway!

By “quiet moments”, I’m referring to the moments where nothing noteworthy is happening. Players are moving between areas or catching their breath after something dramatic. Whatever it is, these moments are usually my favourites.

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Battlefield is the series that comes to mind when I think of these – especially the older titles. My favourite moments in Bad Company 2 were simply seeing the destruction off in the distance as I ran to the next point, or just sneaking around with my friends. Taking in the atmosphere and recognising that things are developing without your input is a powerful feeling that I think many games are afraid of.

Some developers seem to feel that players should always be busy and always be pursuing something, and in many ways that’s a perfectly fair assessment. There’s a very real risk of boredom from encouraging these quiet moments – DayZ had some of my favourite gaming memories, but it also had hours of walking in a straight line, for example.

Final Fantasy XV encouraged these moments, with long uneventful drives between locations taking up a solid portion of the games running time. Those moments stuck with me more than most of the plot and certainly more than any side story.

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I don’t know what the secret to making these moments so compelling is. In FF:XV, it’s the characters banter and the beautiful world. In Battlefield, it’s the sense of presence, knowing you’re in a world that is extremely active and deadly with or without your presence – but also knowing that your presence (and lack of it) is making a difference in itself.

How do you feel? Are there any quiet moments that stick out for you, or games that do it particularly well? Let me know in the comments!

On “Health Orbs” (Day 29)

“Health Orbs” here refers to items the player can collect that heal them. These typically exist separate to the narrative, as a simple – but effective – gameplay mechanic. In a select few cases the game may justify it, usually by having the protagonist absorb something (blood, souls) from their enemy.

There have been thousands of methods of healing characters throughout gaming, but I still think the “health orb” is one of the most efficient and interesting.

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Diablo 3 is one of the most straightforward and interesting examples in recent memory – when enemies die, they have a chance to drop a health orb. If the player touches it, they heal by a certain amount. Simple, right?

This is easy to understand even for the most casual of gamers, but the real brilliance of the mechanic lies in the way it makes players move forward. In most games, running low on health makes you retreat and either wait until you heal or find another means of healing (depending on the game). In Diablo 3, players are actively rewarded for fighting to their last, which is infinitely more fun and dramatic.

Another game that uses this mechanic in a more roundabout way is 2016’s DOOMDOOM has “glory kills”, where the player can execute injured demons to restore health, somehow.

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This is exactly the same idea, though done with a bit more flair (and in a slightly more obfuscated way). Players are rewarded for staying in the fight and moving forward, rather than taking cover and hiding.

We’re moving away from the basic idea a little, but this is also present in Bloodborne. Players can restore lost health if they fight back within a small time limit after being hit, which encourages them to stay in the fray and keep the fight going – and that’s brilliant.

Rarely do people talk about their exciting gaming memories and say “I was running away, because I was low on health, then I hid for 30 seconds while it recovered!”. It’s boring gameplay in almost every case. Systems like the ones mentioned above allow players to recover by taking risks and having a more exciting gameplay session, all without breaking the flow of gameplay (or combat, as in these examples).

Do you agree? Are there any combat-centric health recovery systems that come to mind? Let me know in the comments!

On ‘S’ Ranks (Day 28)

Many games feature ranking systems for the players performance – play well, receive a high rank (like A) or perform badly and receive a D rank, which is tragic and you should feel terrible about yourself.

That’s fine, and it makes sense. It encourages players to improve and is an easy way to track progress. What I’ve never quite understood is the idea of the coveted ‘S’ Rank.

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S Ranks are reserved for the absolute best of the best – if an A rank is a score of 90%+, S ranks would be reserved for perfect 100% plays (or even higher, if that’s somehow permitted). This isn’t always the case – the screenshot above shows some damage taken and still awards an S rank, for example, but it’s still an extremely small amount of damage to take (and it’s very easy to take damage in Devil May Cry 3).

I do “understand” S Ranks in the sense that I know why they exist. There’s something special about unlocking a rank beyond the normal maximum – A – even if it’s arbitrary. I know that I’ve played games that cap at an ‘A’ rank, and it’s always disappointed me, for some reason.

What I’m more confused about is the origin of the S Rank, and in my 12 minutes of googling I couldn’t find much (so, naturally, I gave up). I don’t even know if the S is meant to stand for something (Special? Super?).

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According to this Giant Bomb article, S Ranks were developed in Japan because anything below ‘C’ is considered a failing grade, and they wanted a broader range of grades to work with. I haven’t been able to find any kind of proof (or really any form of evidence at all) that this is true, but it’s a better explanation than “I dunno, just because?” which is what I’ve been working with until now.

Do you have any idea? Theories? Evidence? Wild guesses? If you think you might know the origin of the S Rank, please let me know in the comments!

On Survival Modes (Day 27)

Survival Modes are a great metaphor for life – you’re given endless challenges to overcome, but doing so grants rewards (that are ultimately meaningless and then you die). Alright, it’s not a great metaphor, I guess, but you get my point.

For clarity, I’m talking about traditional “survival modes” where you fight an endless wave of enemies, rather than the modern “survival modes” where you have to drink your own pee in Minecraft or whatever.

Survival Modes tend to exist in action-heavy games, especially in fighting games. This makes a lot of sense, especially as a kind of training tool; there’s no better way to improve your “not getting stabbed” skills than fighting infinite enemies in a row while trying to not get stabbed.

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I’m not necessarily a huge fan, if only because I find these modes tend to be too stressful. Knowing I’m eventually doomed to die regardless of my actions is a bit of a crappy feeling (like in the real world!), so I like to avoid it in games where I can.

Having said that, it’s a great way to learn, especially in games with complex fighting systems. If you can only improve via practice, what better practice than as many fights as you can possibly handle?

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My favourite survival mode by far comes in the form of Devil May Cry 3’s “Bloody Palace”. It throws players into arena after arena, and once every enemy is defeated, 3 separate portals to the next floor will appear. There are a total of 9999 floors, and players can take any of these 3 portals at any time – one takes you up 1 floor, the other 10 floors and the final one 100 floors.

This feels like a real “best of both worlds” approach. Want a survival mode you can beat? Take it 100 floors at a time and try to reach the ending (it’s an insane challenge even with the 100 floor boost). Otherwise, take it 10 or even 1 floor at a time to get as much combat as you could want.

How about you? Do you have a preferred survival mode? Do you feel the same way I do (or are you passionately opposed)? Let me know in the comments!

On Unlockable Difficulty Levels (Day 26)

Most games have various levels of difficulty, usually ranging from “Easy” to “Hard”. Some games go a step further and have one or more above hard, usually something like “Nightmare” or, for the less imaginative developers, “Very Hard”. These modes are typically a bit unbalanced (in favor of the game) and are occasionally ludicrously difficult, introducing mechanics like “No Saving” or “One Hit Kills”.

That’s all good and fine – my problem is when developers lock these difficulty levels behind some arbitrary gate. When I picked up Resident Evil 4 HD on the PS4, I realised I had to go back through it on Normal difficulty to unlock the hard mode (in this case, “Professional” difficult).

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This sucks, and I see no good reason for it. Why make the player jump through arbitrary hoops to unlock a suitable difficulty? I’ve played Resident Evil 4 to completion about nine times now, as well as sinking several hours into the bonus modes – normal mode is boring.

Even in games I haven’t played before, the standard difficulty is often catered to a casual crowd, because of course it is – the standard mode is built for the standard audience. As someone who plays an ungodly amount of games, I’m perfectly happy to dive into a higher difficulty off the bat, but that’s rarely an option.

It’s just something I don’t fully understand. Why make players jump through arbitrary hoops just to unlock a difficulty that suits their skill level? Should a setting that properly balances the game be a hidden unlockable? What if you wanted to enable subtitles – should that option be a rare drop from a boss?

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To me, locked difficulties feel like an antiquated holdover from when almost nobody was good at games, by virtue of the fact that they weren’t nearly as common. I guarantee that most people were terrible at Devil May Cry when it released, because it was a new kind of game. On the other hand, a whole bunch of people could have jumped comfortably into DmC: Devil May Cry, because the genre was old hat by the time it released.

I understand that some developers may have reservations about allowing players to dive right into the hardest mode without experiencing the game first, but it’s their decision; some people prefer to do that. If the option exists to lower the difficulty level later, all the better.

How do you feel about locked difficulty levels? Do you have an argument as to why they should exist at all? Let me know in the comments!